Tuesday, 26 April 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Seven)

There’s this thing called the Star Trek Effect (or Factor) whereby anything can happen in an episode (or in some cases two) as long as everything is back to normal by the end. This was DC’s attitude towards comicbook continuity*. Marvel’s was essentially the same, but with some subtle differences.

*[Continuity is a relatively new thing in comics, like bathrooms in houses; it's a latecomer that makes you wonder how we managed without it. Our lives have continuity, so do soap operas, but in general things like sitcoms, even serials, tended to be - this is your format encased in a flexible bubble, do anything you want, but don't break out of the bubble. Soap operas became hugely successful because of the feeling they were... ongoing - comics adopted this idea in the early 1960s and changed the way comics were read.]

Marvel’s entire continuity idea is based on the premise of giving the reader the ‘illusion of change’ it was something Stan Lee grasped the idea of while watching some of the SF and drama series of the late 1950s. The impression is the story is moving forward, but in reality all the cast are running to stand still. Conclusions have no place in ongoing dramas on TV and therefore they don’t in comics. No other comic produced by anyone embraced that idea more than The X-Men, but we’ll get to them, Spider-Man is who we’re talking about.

Spider-Man advanced continuity leaps and bounds. Not only did Peter Parker develop beyond the four-eyed nerdy science geek into a respectable student teacher with a host of friends, he faced tragedies that most comic characters never saw. People died, fathers of girlfriends were killed, relatives suffered serious illnesses, friends became drug addicts and then to top it all off, Spider-Man’s long-standing girlfriend was killed – possibly by the direct actions of Spider-Man to save her (but this is true geekism and we’ll explore that later, unfortunately). Revenge and vigilantism also raised their heads and Spider-Man was a comic that others had to aspire to, especially when it became the best selling comic in the USA around 1970.

Like the bloated histories of DC characters, Spider-Man’s success couldn’t be sustained for long. By the time the Direct Market was in place it was still one of the top-selling comics, but it had lost its way and like so many other comics was dragging along the bottom of the quality pool. Too many Rocket Racer, Will o'the Wisp and disco dancing ducks had sullied its fine reputation. The 80s were something of a nadir for the wallcrawler; but as the decade drew to a close, things started to change.

Marvel, like I said, had started to be recognised for some outstanding comics. People had been pointing at the X-Men for about a decade, but now they were looking at other long-standing Marvel characters and saying, “Hey, this isn’t half bad.” Comics like The Incredible Hulk, something of a laughing stock in comics had suddenly taken on the status of ‘must read’, Daredevil was outstanding and writer Ann Nocenti was touching on themes that even Frank Miller hadn’t dared to explore when he made his name writing and drawing the blind superhero. Even old standards like The Avengers (a group of heroes thrown together to save the world from even more serious threats) and Iron Man were getting makeovers, albeit quite non-evasively. Heroes were regularly getting their arses kicked, people were dying, Marvel seemed to be trimming back on the excesses of the over-fertile imaginations of the 1970s and in doing so was injecting something different – a kind of post post-modern pseudo-realism, into its characters.

However, Spider-Man had slowly seen its core audience dwindle. It didn’t really have the same following it had once had for a number of years, and while Spidey’s comics were still some of the best selling, there was a feeling around Marvel that Spider-Man needed an injection of adrenaline, to get it kick started again – to make it worthy of its top selling status.

So they killed someone big.

Well, not exactly big, but unexpected and out of the blue.

DC had success with Dark Knight and Watchmen and also a number of other ‘rather more adult’ themed series like Camelot 3000. These books relied not just on good stories and art, but also on prestige printing techniques, top quality paper, proper binding and probably sex. DC made their special projects just that – special. Marvel, it seems, were reluctant to take the plunge into prestige printing; nor did they want to label their comics with anything that might threaten their position on the newsstand (yes, it still sold to the newsstands, but nowhere near the quantity it once did), so if they had something good, it just slotted into existing titles with no fanfare or frills - which is a bit contrary, given what I have told you about the company and what is to come.

A six-part story across their three monthly Spider-Man comics was to rock the foundations of the publisher. DC’s successes were known among non-comics fans, because they were granted the status and critical success outside of the comics industry – they are held as shining examples of the ability comics have to be something more than just ephemeral kids’ stuff. This six-part Spider-Man story was unheralded; it just arrived; yet in many ways it had as much of an effect on Marvel comics readers (and the hard to please critics) as anything else they ever released.

The story was called Kraven’s Last Hunt and it featured the long-standing Spider-Man villain Kraven the Hunter. Not the most ambitious of characters from the offset; Kraven was basically a thug cum big-game hunter who decides that Spider-Man is the greatest prize of all. He was an ambiguous villain, as most memorable villains often were and despite often being in cohorts with other more blatant villains, the character just didn’t sit well in that role of megalomaniacal wannabe world leader or crime boss. Kraven didn’t steal, he wasn’t interested in power; he was not ‘organised crime’; he hunted. Kraven, however, was also inexorably dull. It didn’t matter who wrote him, he just came across as a pompous (South African) arse.

Then one week in 1987, everything changed. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the story but in a nutshell it revolved around Kraven abducting Spider-Man, drugging him and burying in an unmarked grave and then assuming his role as the do-gooder Spider-Man. While he prances around New York fulfilling his fantasies – if you can’t beat him, become him – Parker lays in almost asphyxiation in the soil. The denouement is that Kraven, unable to be the true Spider-Man, commits suicide – a definite no-no as far as comics are concerned. The entire story is dark, gloomy and still has the feel of the darkest Dark Knight story and a psychological exploration of one man’s obsessive madness. It also showed Peter Parker in a different light and ignited the fans desire to read Spider-Man again. Where he had become as lame as Superman had in the 60s and 70s, now there was the chance that like other comics characters, Spider-Man was being dragged into the modern era.

If there was any parity, the creative team of J. Marc DeMatteis and Mike Zeck should have been catapulted to the same status as Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and Frank Miller. But this didn’t happen, mainly because a far more commercially successful creative team followed Kraven’s Last Hunt. Plus it was probably a good six months before the rest of the non-Spider-Man buying comics fans started to hear just how crazy and off-the-wall these six issues were. By the time people were acknowledging this as one of the greatest Spider-Man stories of all time DeMatteis was back at DC and Mike Zeck, not the most prolific of artists had disappeared back into obscurity.

The reason I've focused on this specific story, when I could have chosen a personal favourite from the same era, is because it was a game changer at Marvel. DC Comics had rebuilt itself; hacking away at 50 years of history (or baggage as it was classed as) and by reinventing itself opened its doors to new readers. Marvel didn’t have a defining moment like its older competitor, but it did change, but far more slowly. This was really the point in history where Marvel kind of acknowledged that comics had a sociological meaning and worth; that they were more than just ephemeral.

Anyhow, enter Todd McFarlane - A former hockey player from Canada who drew Spider-Man like he really was a spider. McFarlane’s star was in ascension already. He’d helped turn the Hulk around and now his attention was on the character he believed he was born to draw. It seemed a bit of a gamble to team this hot new artist up with someone with a long history in comics and with no great success, but that’s what Spider-Man editor, Ralph Macchio (no, not that one) did. David Michelinie had been a jobbing writer on the scene for over 15 years (one of his first jobs was writing Swamp Thing – and very good he was at it too!). He had stints on a number of titles but had never firmly established himself. He sat down with McFarlane and they had this idea to return Spider-Man to his roots in a modern way. Over 20-odd issues they brought back almost every single one of Spider-Man’s most imaginative original villains. In some cases they reinvented them, in others we, the fan, had even more shocks in store. The stories were fluid and the artwork like nothing that had ever been seen before.

The Amazing Spider-Man, the monthly comic, saw its sales skyrocket and it was all down to what Marvel perceived as one man. Todd McFarlane. Poor old David Michelinie received no credit from Marvel; he was, after all, just the writer, so he virtually disappeared from comics after that. I don’t think I’ve seen him write much since being unceremoniously dumped by Marvel, although I’ve been informed he did start to make a comeback around 2005 and still does the occasional script even now. It was a shame because the actual stories and scripting were above average and enhanced McFarlane’s artwork immensely.

The comic became so successful that it rivalled The X-Men franchise in sales. [The X-Men was by this time a franchise; it outsold every other comic in the USA, won all the major awards and had become the focus of Marvel’s attention] Marvel was looking for a way to really cash in on the then current comics frenzy and decided to give McFarlane his own Spider-Man comic. I mean, the guy could draw, so he could obviously write as well… Couldn’t he?

In August 1990, Marvel announced the arrival of the adjective-less Spider-Man. A new high-quality production comic produced exclusively for Marvel by the saviour of Spider-Man and possibly the entire comics industry – Todd McFarlane. The retail world went wild and ordered it like it was the next best thing since sliced bread. Total sales for the comic eventually exceeded 3million. It was the biggest selling comic since the arrival of the Direct Market. Its sales reflected a bygone era when every comic published had print runs in their millions. Plus Marvel made extra money from the comic by releasing it in about five different variations. There was a black and silver cover, a green and gold cover, a black and red cover, a plethora of colours to tantalise the growing speculator market. Some came in plastic bags, others didn’t. In fact, despite having had a print run that was well over three times larger than the average Spider-Man comic, speculators still managed to screw the last pennies from the fans pockets. More importantly, Spider-Man #1 was so successful it gave Marvel ideas – massive ideas about how to turn an already lucrative company into something really big. It reinforced ideas they had been working on and the success of this single comic had given them a free rein implement them.

Arguably DC could have ridden this wave with Marvel, but whenever the company had a success they seemed to hide it under a bushel – the company seemed reluctant to capitalise on its own success. Instead of cashing in on Batman when they really should have, they waited three years and brought out a comic at around the same time as Marvel launched Spider-Man. The new Legends of the Dark Knight should have been a major success for DC (in reality it was, but it could have be so much better), but comics fans and movie goers had moved on. The second Batman movie, with which this was timed to coincide with, did nothing for comics or comics sales.

Even more parochial successes were overlooked until it was too late. DC, the home of Mad magazine, had a tradition for satire that others have never been able to manage and when it brought out a serious parody of its most ‘serious’ heroes, it was an instant hit and had sales that were considered excellent in a market dominated by Marvel and Batman.

The comic in question was called Justice League and was based on the concept of the old team of DC heroes called The Justice League of America. A team, like most superhero teams, that was formed to protect the world from even more dangerous threats… and ... yawn… That was how a lot of superhero team books were now being received. Deeply cynical people argued that superteam books only existed to keep copyright on duff concepts and characters. What the creators behind Justice League did was take half the original team and throw in a bunch of complete and utter wankers to make up the numbers. It was jammed-packed with self-deprecating humour, bizarre scenarios and enough intrigue and interest to keep the fans coming back for more. It also had Batman acting exactly how you've imagined him to act. Coincidentally it was partly created by one J. Marc DeMatteis (of Kraven's Last Hunt).

Despite the success of this (not) spoof comic, DC took well over two years to spin off from it. By which time the bubble was rapidly deflating. Justice League had lost enough of its popularity for the spin off comic Justice League Europe to be nothing more than a marginal success. If DC editorial team had been going on a cruise they would have missed the boat. The biggest irony of DC’s repeated inability to catch the gravy train is they are owned by one of the largest entertainment corporations in the world – TimeWarner. By the time the Justice League concept had run its course, DC had dozens of spin-offs in the pipeline (these were genuinely believed to be good enough to stimulate sales on all the other Justice League books, but should have come out when the original was a sales success rather than once the gravy train had moved onto another plate of meat).

So, McFarlane recreated Spider-Man in his desired image and the comics world was going mad at sales of millions for the first time since Nixon was president! The competition had all but been beaten to a bloody pulp and Marvel stock continued to rise. By this time there was serious money interested in Marvel, but their accountants were looking at making the company even more buyable.

Meltdown actually happened in 1991, but the real repercussions wouldn’t be seen for a couple of years – as is often the case with economic depressions.

Next time: A brief history of Marvel Comics and lots about the X-Men

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Six)

By the time I arrived on the retailing scene, had I had any common sense at all, I should have turned around on my heels and gone and opened a record or bookshop. People not familiar with retail might be confused, but essentially in any specialised market a retailer who is selling wares is most often than not treated with a kind of holy status. Not a direct worship, but most definitely a sort of ‘we’ll bend over backwards to help you help us make money’. Everyone worships at the altar of Mammon and worshippers tend to stick together if it's in their interests. This most commonly happens in the entertainment industry, of which comicbooks is a sub-division of. Video and DVD shops, record, bookshops and especially games shops, all of these are patronised by distributors and production companies.

Major releases are accompanied by heaps of freebies, large Point Of Sale (POS) presentations, more posters and mobiles than you can shake the proverbial stick at. The entertainment industry knows that it has to look good. It needs to sell itself – big time. It knows that the difference between a good national campaign and a bad one could be as little as a few thousand pounds worth of POS. It can be argued that comics, as the poor cousin to all the bigger, more patronised entertainment mediums, doesn't have the money to do this kind of thing. That argument would be facile if you look at how much the industry has made from everything from sales to superhero films. Comics publishers use films as their advertisement of choice now. In the 90s they were as forward thinking as mayflies.

The week before I opened my comic shop I visited my distributor to stock up on essentials. I had this image in my mind of a great sweeping window display, with posters, mobiles and maybe, if I was lucky, one of the distributor’s in-house window dressers performing the task. Oh my naivety makes me laugh so much, in hindsight...

I’m walking round the warehouse with the salesman and I asked him about Point of Sale. “Oh,” he says, “it’s over here.” And he leads me to a bit of Dexion racking at the back of the small warehouse. Feeling slightly underwhelmed I proceeded to pull out some posters, a couple of spinner racks with DC Comics emblazoned on it, and just a lot of stuff that I figured I could tart the shop up with. We got back to where the rest of my order was waiting and the sales guy says “Wait here while I go and work out how much your Point Of Sale stuff is.”


“Hang on, mate. What do you mean, find out how much the Point Of Sale stuff is?”

“Your Point Of Sale stuff.” He said as if he were talking to a moron – and I suppose that must have been how it seemed.

“Do you mean I have to pay for Point of Sale stuff?” I asked disbelievingly. He nodded. I frowned. He nodded again as if he knew exactly what I meant. “Exactly how much is this stack of tatty little goodies going to cost me?” Five minutes later he was back.

“£70.” I picked my jaw off the flaw and said the only two words that seemed appropriate at the time.

“Fuck that!” The sales guy shrugged his shoulders. “I just don’t believe it. You have the audacity to charge for Point of Sale?”

“No. The publishers charge for it.”

“You are kidding me?” I think he realised I was also being rhetorical.

That’s it. That’s the first hard and fast rule of comics retailing. You get fuck all for nothing.

Every month I’d look at the POS stuff in the back of the catalogues and work my blood pressure up to boiling point, especially when I saw stuff that had that horrendous acronym POA next to it. Like when you see it on houses in posh estate agents, POA means Price On Application; to me it means – this is too expensive for the likes of you.

Actually it still makes my blood boil because it hasn’t changed much and probably won’t change much either. Can you honestly think of any other multi-million dollar making industry that does this?

It’s not good, is it?

There has been a change, a move to make some stuff available to the retailer – DC sends posters and handouts to retailers, depending on the number of copies a person takes of a specifically publicised issue – no more, no less – the figure is governed by DC. There are no provisos for doing anything other than putting a poster on a wall or putting a flier in a bag. Probably you have to restrict the fliers because you need to target those most likely to buy rather than having a punt and seeing if you can attract some new readers.

I mentioned elsewhere that comics retailers are not real retailers. They’re people (on more occasions than not) with either too much money or too many comics. I mean, if you’re a comic fan what better way to earn a living than sitting on your fat arse reading comics all day, chatting to fellow comics fans and taking their money off of them? Hell, it was why I did it and I didn't have a fat arse or any real desire to talk costumes with Fred Customer.

When comics fans are young most want to be artists or writers, but as they grow older and realise that they have absolutely no natural talent they end up opening comic shops.

After the economic implosion of the early 1990s, even more onus was placed on the retailer. But during the boom years – post Batman movie – comics sales went through the roof, or so it seemed. There was so much money moving around and, for a limited period only, so much profit being made that retailers couldn’t care less about the even more stringent economic demands the distributors placed on them. As the rest of the world faced economic downturn, comics were still riding high. The distributor could enforce tighter credit controls without opposition, using the rest of the world’s economic plight as the excuse, while they were still probably not actually being hurt by it - comics retailing looked pretty much bullet-proof at this point. As well as cutting credit terms to 15 days from 30, the distributors started offering volume discounts to their larger retailers. This meant that shops started to over order on the strength of two ifs – if they can sell them and if they will be worth anything in the future. In most cases No was the answer to both.

Meltdown started with the mutants. But we’re still a way from them.

Actually something happened before that. Many historians say that it all started to go really wrong around 1993 and that complete meltdown happened in 1995. This isn’t true; these people were kidding themselves and us.

I lay the blame squarely at the feet of Tim Burton’s Batman. Advances in cinematic techniques meant that superheroes on screen no longer had to look cheap and shoddy. In fact, there had been so many technological advances in the 15 years between Superman: the Movie and Batman that Hollywood was eyeing comics as a major source of (cheaper) exploitation.

Batman was so good and so evocative that it did something that the comics publishers probably didn’t expect. It brought decades of retired comic fans out of the closet and into the comic shops. Because Batman was cool, comics, by osmosis, were also cool. As stated earlier, the world went through a period where it was cool to have comics on coffee tables. The month I opened my shop a computer game company offered me a six-foot life-size Batman and wall display featuring the Batmobile and other characters from the film. I couldn’t really refuse and wondered how much this would cost me. I was doubly embarrassed when the girl said nothing at all. I mean, she answered me, she just said it was the compliments of Segasoft, or whoever the manufacturer was. In fact whenever a computer game company produced anything that was remotely linked to comics I suppose they figured that comics readers might buy computer games and I was often the recipient of much free stuff. What a different world and I didn’t even seriously sell their products? Which sort of puts the comics POS fiasco into perspective; I sold a few computer games, yet would be showered with freebies; I sold mainly comics and couldn’t get an advertising poster for nothing.

But I digress, at some point in the late 1980s sales of comics started to rise. It was obvious that this rise was due to an influx of new readers. Never having any need for demographics, the industry just figured it was a slew of new young faces about to have their worlds transformed. In truth, there were a lot of new comics readers, Batman had helped that, but it also grew because of the enthusiasm of big brothers or fathers who were returning to comics. With sales on the up for the first time in years the industry actually remained reticent about it. They had seen passing fads before, but in all honesty probably not one with a sales spike like this. It never seemed to occur to the major publishers that former fans, now with more disposable income, could be returning to the fold. It also didn't seem to occur to them that these people should be nurtured.

Marvel was the market leader; it had taken the company over 20 years to usurp DC as the top US comics company, but the advent of the Direct Market and Marvel’s aggressive stand with it helped the company wrestle power from DC once and for all. Perhaps sensing changes in the future that would be detrimental to them, DC decided to reinvent themselves in 1986. It needed not only to shed nearly 50 years of baggage, but it had to appeal to the younger generations of comic readers who ignored DC in favour of the more sophisticated soap opera-styled Marvel comics. DC released a 12-part series called Crisis on Infinite Earths and essentially got rid of 50 years of history in 12 months and basically reinvented every character from the ground up. Only Batman was left alone – the changes demanded by DC’s execs and their future readers barely touched the Dark Knight, his world changed around him, but he stayed essentially the same. The reason? Batman still made money and there was a big budget film in the schedules. Incredibly Superman, DC's real icon, wasn’t exempt – especially as no more films were likely after the Quest For Peace flopped.

Two years later and with comics sales rising, DC execs were probably patting themselves on the back thinking it was a job well done. Sales on all their key comics were up and Batman was the hottest thing in town. But they remained quiet. They just didn’t seem able to comprehend the success.

Then Marvel really happened. DC had had major commercial and critical successes with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns – a modern look at a not-too-distant future Batman, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen – which was basically a reinvention of the characters belonging to a now defunct comics company called Charlton Comics (effectively for many years the third publisher behind Marvel and DC) and an Alan Moore written Batman one-shot called The Killing Joke. The fact that Alan Moore was obviously a very talented ‘writer’ and not just a ‘comics writer’ probably helped and Frank Miller’s stark realities of Dark Knight made people aware that superheroes in spandex weren’t just a laugh a minute. These two writers probably helped put a human face on comics. But it was Marvel that had a lot of rising young stars working for them and in terms of economic return it was Marvel who benefited from DC’s critical success. Comics critics were actually praising a lot of Marvel books rather than whining about them. Whatever happened to Marvel in 1988 it helped catch that wave and not just ride it, but sail high above it. It’s amazing the company went bankrupt a few years later.

I suppose most Marvel success stories start with Spider-Man. He is, after all, the most successful Marvel creation and the only viable iconic alternative to DC’s Batman and Superman. Spider-Man first appeared in 1962, by Stan Lee and a reclusive artist named Steve Ditko – together they created the quintessential comicbook hero. Unlike Superman and Batman, the reader identified as much with Spidey’s alter ego, Peter Parker, as they did with the wall-crawling wisecracking crime fighter. What attracted comics reader to Spider-Man was the fact that Peter Parker represented the nerd, the high school geek, the guy that all the jocks pushed around, the wimp with his face in a stack of books – the character most comic readers could identify with themselves. Jocks didn’t read comics. Jocks were like Flash Thompson in Spider-Man, they hung around with the best looking girls, they did cool things and they were guaranteed a place in college because of their physical prowess. Parker was weedy, nerdy and unhappy – he was the average US teenager. Not only did Spider-Man deal with an assortment of colourful villains, but Peter Parker had to deal with things like bereavement, having crushes, being bullied, feeling isolated and, above all else, loneliness. Clark Kent might have been mild-mannered, but he wasn’t the bundle of neuroses that Peter Parker was. More important than that was that Parker’s dilemmas either got worse or better every month. The reader was expected to believe they were reading the chronicles of a hero, where they knew every facet of his life.

Where Superman’s basic plot for thirty years had been Lois Lane trying to solve the mystery of his secret identity (the previous month’s adventure was rarely ever mentioned). Superman could remember fighting Braniac six months earlier, but Lois couldn’t remember the nose on her face (or the difference a pair of glasses made). This was an endearing charm of all the Superman books, but the reader had toughened up in the tough real world of the 1960s and changes happened; by the 1980s the reader expected even more. There was more sophistication on TV and at the cinema, so the DC comics reader wanted realism and if realism wasn’t possible then they want chronological order – they wanted the continuity that Marvel introduced into their stories (Despite the fact that Marvel continuity was now over 20 years old and Peter Parker had only aged about three years). Spider-Man not only remembered fighting villains, but also remembered conversations he had with friends, family and girlfriends – Spider-Man was soap opera; Superman was vignette.

Next week: more on the need for continuity and how a new breed of creators began having a profound effect on comics in general.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Five)

Comics lesson 3:

When the average (non-comic fan) person thinks of comics he usually thinks either of the latest glut of superhero film spin-offs or possibly how much some guy your mum knew sold the contents of his loft for ten grand. People think of comics either as something for kids or something that might be worth a lot of money. I haven’t been a retailer for nearly 20 years and yet I still get asked ‘How much is this worth?’ That sentence is a generalisation, but it is one of the most common reactions I get from people I meet. It happened as recently as last week (April 2011) when an old friend brought asked me about the 2000ADs he has and whether the comics and annuals were worth anything.

Comicbook speculation has been around for as long as comicbooks have been a collectible commodity. I have a copy of a very old US book – it’s called The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide and it has been going since the late 1960s – it is an illustration of how people realised that comics were collectible and were going to be worth more money than cover price. Back in the days when US comicbooks only cost 12cents, there was still a collectors market out there and comics were worth thousands of dollars – there were collectors even then, prepared to pay through the nose to complete their sets. By the arrival of the 1990s single comics items such as Detective Comics #27 (the first appearance of Batman) were selling for upwards of $100,000 (Heck, if they only had crystal balls seeing into the future...). The comicbook as an exchange rate had arrived.

The thing was when the modern speculators arrived, they weren’t interested in the old classics as such; they were more interested in how much they could make out of small print runs, gimmick-enhanced covers and anything that Movers & Shakers might have declared as a ‘hot item’. While the collectors’ value of Golden and Silver Age comics have never wavered, the desirability of them has. Comics speculation is as vulnerable to trends as any other commodity.

It is the law of supply and demand that makes retail work. The comicbook back issue industry (a lumbering whale if ever there was one) hardly ever works well, especially when it is mainly dependent on zeitgeist. In reality, it is incongruous to even think of it as an industry. Back issue sales are a massive way of a retailer making money on dead stock, but in reality, the percentage of saleable comics compared to worthless pieces of printed paper is massive. Only about 1% of old comics have a resale price more than they originally cost and while some of these might increase exponentially, the profit disappears because of all the comics a retailer will eventually take a loss on - the 99% of shit.

The speculators came in and not only strip-mined the retail industry; they filled it with a belief that was not, in the long run, a commercially viable economics. There were neither morals nor ethics being applied. Comicbooks were inflating at the rate of 500% a week in some cases. Specifics we’ll go into later, but in 1992 the only comics worth buying were the ones you were told you had to have, even if that meant paying £500 for a comic that wasn’t worth 500 pence a month earlier – and trust me, this happened, on numerous occasions. The advent of the comics speculator saw the prices of sought after comics increase faster than petrol prices rose in 2011. Comics for a time were the fastest growing profitable commodity on the face of the planet, so it wasn't that much of a surprise when their worth got exploited!

In 1976 when I attended my first comic mart there were about 15 entrepreneurs selling their goods. This stayed pretty much constant for the next few years. By the time I gave up selling for the first time there was a growing number of ‘dealers’ and by the time I returned, I was just a drop in the ocean. Every bank manager, civil servant and isolated Goth in the country was digging out their comics and hawking them around the comic mart circuit, trying to catch the speculator wave and make some money.

In 1976, there were a dozen or so dealers that could travel to London for one of the quarterly comic marts that had been created by Nick Landau in the December of 1975. Landau later went on to become co-owner of Titan Distributors and the co-owner and publisher of Titan Books, one of the UK’s leading comics reprint specialist publishers. Dez Skinn claims he had the idea of creating these specific comic markets after coming back from a trip to the US, but by the time he got his act together Landau had his up and running. I find this revision of history unlikely, by the end of this book you might understand why, so I’ll say no more of that for now. I feel that is wasn't unheard of to believe that Landau had the original idea; he had already shown a lot of business acumen - a not quite Richard Branson of comics - and possessed enough 'fanboy' in him to make it feasible. I remember meeting Landau before he became a businessman; he was an amiable geek, basically. The kind of guy that you can imagine having an idea, not stealing one.

With new comics selling for no more than 25p and the average back issue selling for about 10% more, the guys attending these comics markets sold shed-loads of comics and could quite easily take £4-£5,000 at each event - and this was the late 70s when a gallon of petrol was about 50p. They were the only people in the country selling comics and they benefited enormously from that exclusivity - or, in other words, they made a killing. However, by the time I stopped dealing the second time around, I knew some of those dealers who had once taken 5,000+ for an afternoon's work, taking less than £50 and losing money because the tables' cost exponentially more in 1992 than they had in 1976 - a table cost me £3 in 1977 and in 2011 they cost upwards of £100 a time.

There were so many people selling their collections, mixed with so many dealers all selling the same comics at the same prices that only those with truly unique stock were benefitting from these comics events. Typical supply and demand, but in a reserved, very British way. All it needed was for someone to say, bollocks to this I'm having a 25% off sale, and they would have cashed in big time, but even comicbook dealers in the 1970s had a blind side about selling comics for less money than they believed them to be worth. Comics dealers are obstinate creatures. They are not retailers. A true retailer would baulk at a comics retailer and spit feathers at a comics dealer.

Comics Lesson 3b:

Back Issues – you will hear much mention of these. If you hadn’t already worked it out, a back issue is an old issue of a comicbook – it can be worth money or it can be worthless (and this statement in itself has caused more consternation in retailing than any other single theme). Back issues are something of a bane to retailers, dealers and publishers.

The publishers don’t give a shit about back issues because they’ve already made their money and won’t make anything from the collectible resale. It doesn’t matter that a back issue can stimulate present day or future sales, no comics publisher is either that forward thinking or could justify it to their keepers - you want us to promote old comics? Are you mad?

Dealers, specifically the ones who have day jobs and sell at markets on the weekend, see back issues as their lifeblood, but (and this is a but that applies in all fields of retail) they can only really make any money if the stock they are selling is the stock the buyer is currently looking for – pretty bleeding obvious, really; first law of supply and demand.

The dealer, the one with the battered old estate car and the energy at the weekend to do lots for little return is normally best situated to sell back issues because, quite simply, of the way the he stores them. A comics shop retailer takes up most of his shop floor space with back issue boxes - rows and rows and many thousands of what is essentially, to him, dead stock. In the 1990s, retailers could have 60% plus of their total floor/retail space covered in back issues, yet this area would only generate – if they were really lucky – about 10% of the annual sales! The comic dealer, on the other hand, keeps his stock in his garage or garden shed and it doesn’t cost him anything bar his travel expenses and his table cost.

But, you have to remember one vital historical and sentimental point –back issues were the reason comics shops started in the first place! Old comics are collectible, but they also have a sentimental value that is almost genetic.

Shop owners of this era knew that there is (supposedly) always a new punter out there who will become so engrossed in the new concept of comics or specific characters that he or she might buy everything you have in stock for vastly inflated prices! Believe it or not, it does happen, so don’t smile knowingly, because you don't know - unfortunately, it happens less and less.

Most retailers, right up to about 2000, could not bring themselves to realise that the vast majority of their stock was worthless and literally anything obtained for it was money in the bank. Even today, many retailers refuse to acknowledge that a comic that has already been paid for and absorbed into stock is worth whatever someone will pay for it and that alone. Time over price along renders most comics worthless pieces of paper. Plus, arguably, some retailers will look at old stock and say, "I paid X for that. It retails for Y. I will therefore sell it for Y, regardless of trends. If you find a copy in my shop two years after it came out, it'll cost you the same price as it did then. Simple." This might sound sensible, but in reality it's stupid.

Comicbook retailing is probably a subject one could easily write a book on - oh look... It is both fascinating and deadly boring. For every positive you can think of, I can think of 100 negatives. People should never go into comicbook retailing unless they have a limitless supply of money, patience and understanding of abstract surrealism. It also helps if you have an understanding of the retail sector – which I thought I did have, but it’s either immaterial or inconsequential in comparison to the amount of money you can throw at it.

Jesus, this is difficult. Comics retailing is a stupid business and, to add insult to injury, is also one of the most convoluted areas of this labyrinthine industry. First a history lesson; entertaining I hope and then we'll attempt to herd cats or see through milk...

Once upon a time there was a shop called Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, it was situated in London’s Soho district and it sold comics. Stacks and stacks of comics. It was the first dedicated comicbook shop in the UK. I went there just the once and was blown away by it - it was the cornucopia of dreams for a 16 year old comics fan. This was the mid-1970s. Dark They Were and Golden Eyed grew out of an SF-fantasy-horror books mail order operation (The Vault of Horror) run by Derek “Bram” Stokes. In 1969 he opened a small shop in Bedfordbury, a back street that was spitting distance from Charing Cross tube station (or The Strand tube as it was back then). He included comics in his list because of demand for them, though he was not a fan as such. It succeeded and he expanded in new premises in Berwick Street, behind Wardour Street. That was even more successful, so he expanded even further, opening a superstore in St Anne's Court on the other side of Wardour Street. But the cut-through, linking Wardour Street to Dean Street was almost exclusively red light, had little legitimate passing trade and was just too big - which sounds like a big budget version of my own tale. Stokes disappeared following a 50% (cash only) sale in 1980. Could this have been an early indication that a comic shop should stay with the confines of its scope? I wish I'd known this when I opened Squonk!!

This was followed by Dez Skinn’s own Quality Comics in Chelsea, Nick Landau’s Forbidden Planet chain and before long comic shops were opening in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. The seed was sown.

By the time I opened my shop in 1989, it was just one of about 300 countrywide. Add that to the 5,000+ stores in the United States and you can see that comics retailing had grown exponentially. The main reason for this growth was the advent of something called the Direct Market - quite possibly one of the least sexy things about a very unsexy industry.

Since their creation comicbooks have been traditionally sold on the US newsstands and on a strictly sale or return basis (SOR). Comics could also be bought in grocery and drug stores. By 1972, the major comics publishers were convinced that business was dying – sales had dropped from a high of ‘in the millions’ to just a million or so; the less popular comics were selling between a quarter and a half a million copies. The small independent magazine distributors had draconian methods with little or no flexibility and those people who had already opened comic stores in the United States were suffering because of restricted ordering practices. Where a Walmart might sell 200 copies of Casper the Friendly Ghost or Betty and Veronica, these new fangled fantasy comic shops, the ones that specialised in Spider-Man and Superman, could only maybe sell 2 copies of the humour mags. However, if they ordered 100 copies of Superman – which they would sell easily, they had to have 100 copies of Casper as well. If they didn’t sell, which they wouldn’t, they had to be returned. No ifs, ands or buts, if you wanted one you had to have the other. Returns weren’t bad, but you paid for them first and then got a refund two months later for your unsold copies – the retailer was making returns every single week of the things he would never, ever, sell.

There had to be some way for the publisher to get more power over the distributors?

Along came a guy called Phil Seuling, the man credited as having invented the Direct Distribution Model. He took his idea to the major comics publishing houses and said ‘leave the distributors, you don’t need them. Sell all of your comics to me. Let me take the risk and you will sell 100% of what you print.’ Or in layman’s terms – leave the distribution to me and I’ll tell you how many of each copy you need to print. It was an idea the publishers embraced wholeheartedly (who wouldn’t? Suddenly a lot of the risk had been removed).

What effectively happened then was a network was formed. Seuling distributed order forms to comics stores, they ordered what they needed and Seuling went back to Marvel, DC and the other smaller publishers and said, ‘here’s what I need’. They printed, waited for their cash and suddenly found new life. There was less uncertainty for the publisher now. The onus had been placed on the retailer suddenly and completely. Of course, both Marvel and DC were still attempting to be distributed in their more conventional retail spaces and they therefore still produced SoR items, but the bulk of their profit suddenly came from Seuling’s ingenious little idea.

Seuling’s Sea Gate Distribution catered for everything the then modern comics store needed – comics, undergrounds, posters, badges, fanzines and any other ephemerally related product. It was a success, but it didn’t go down that well with everyone. Chuck Rozanski, the owner of one of New York’s oldest and best loved comics stores, Mile High Comics, commented, “It [is] essentially a private fishing hole for Phil Seuling”. Fair comment really; because it was. Seuling had only a little more risk than the publisher. The comics stores now had more responsibility for the cash turnover of the comics industry, within a few years it would be responsible for almost 100%. The distributor offered strict 30-day payment deals (in many cases 14 days) and if you didn’t pay, your lifeblood would be stopped almost immediately, and without comics to sell no one will come into your store. And if no one comes into your store..? Seuling effectively became the most powerful man in the industry, far more powerful than your Stan Lees and Jenette Khans (the then publisher of DC Comics).

The fact was even if a small percentage never paid, the comics industry and especially Phil Seuling was making money. The problem was Seuling in 6 years could only capture 6% of the US market and seemed reluctant to expand, the publishers saw the Direct Market as very much the way forward. They didn’t like the fact that 94% of it was still too risky, with SoR deals curtailing their profits.

By 1979, there were a number of distributors starting up and Seuling’s monopoly had been broken, but he had an ace up his sleeve. His distribution centre was situated in the same location where all comicbooks were printed. Therefore Seuling could cut out the middle distribution costs. He could effectively deliver from the back door of the printer.

Enter Chuck Rozanski again. Mile High Comics was a hugely successful business, but under the surface it was not as healthy as Rozanski would have hoped. One of the main reasons was despite Phil Seuling’s own distribution outfit many large retailers were still not benefiting from any changes in distribution. Rozanski wrote to Marvel Comics and basically told them that a lot of the retailers weren’t arseholes, they deserved better from the publisher whose pockets they were lining and unlike corner shops, comics store workers go out of their way to sell comics. Much internal legal and political nonsense took place, but at the end Rozanski was responsible for Marvel Comics changing its trade terms, agreeing to help promote the industry in co-op schemes with retailers, but most important the abolition of the advance payment terms. For years Marvel had insisted on being paid for their product before it had even been printed, this meant that what you paid for is what you got, even if it wasn’t what was advertised on the tin.

The industry changed fast over the next few years. Probably due to the arrival of a former postman called Steve Geppi. There have been fortunes made from comics over the years but probably none as big as Steve Geppi and his Diamond Comics Distributors. If you compared comics distributors to football teams, Diamond are Manchester United, the rest are non-league amateurs. Diamond holds the business so firmly you can just about imagine it oozing through its metaphoric fist of iron. When Diamond took over from Seuling things started to move much faster.

In 1981, the first Direct Market only comics were released. A Superboy comic from DC and a new ongoing series from Marvel called Dazzler, which had links to the X-Men so it had an extra bit of oomph behind its launch. Orders exceeded 400,000 a record that stood for three years (but still a drop in the ocean compared to the 'in the millions' the industry once had, but the publishers were bracing themselves for a dramatic shift in the fortunes of comics).

By the mid-1980s Diamond has established itself as the largest distributor of comics, graphic novels, books and comics-related ephemera in the USA. It had competition, but with the exception of a company called Capital City (who Diamond later ‘amalgamated’ with), they were the market leaders in selling comics publishers’ wares. Geppi had taken a gamble in 1979 and because of his reputation as a man of integrity, the comics publishers were quick to deal with him. As publishers saw more and more ways of cutting their own overheads and distributing them further down the food chain, the larger distributors discovered newer ways of offsetting those costs to the retailer. Diamond established its own freight network and this effectively put the rest out of business because they were all dependent on UPS, DHL and the like. The retailer who shopped with the lesser distributor started seeing shipments arrive late and more importantly the overall costs were higher.

To use a metaphor, the Direct Market is like a tyre with a slow puncture. In 1981, when DC Comics finally relented and joined the program, the publisher offered the larger distributors (Diamond and Capital) a further 5% volume discount. Rozanski claims, “DC set it up so that the large distributors would put the small ones out of business.” The man should have done the lottery such were his prophecies. What DC did was put a small nail into the tyre and it has been deflating slowly ever since. There is this thing called The Law of Diminishing Returns and the Direct Market is kind of a perfect example of a Law of Diminishing Returns self-fulfilling prophecy. The word politicians and employers' use is 'consolidation'. DC, owned by the huge TimeWarner corporation, effectively altered a workable premise into something that ensure that comics became the thing I've referred to them as being for all the time I've been involved with them - a cottage industry. Before the Direct Market it was a legitimate, public-faced entertainment medium. The Direct Market ghettoised comics. DC marginalised 50% of that ghetto and witnessed an implosion that still has effects in 2011.

Next week: Mammon, superhero icons, ignorance in retailing, more words...

Friday, 8 April 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Four)

As I alluded to, Dez Skinn is known in comics fandom (a concept explained later) as ‘The British Stan Lee’. [For the benefit of those of you who haven’t heard of Stan Lee, he’s the guy who was partly responsible for the creation of such icons as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, The X-Men, Thor, Daredevil and Iron Man and was head of Marvel Comics for many years]

Skinn was responsible for a lot of changes in comics publishing in the UK. He was a man shrouded in controversy and was trusted by very few people in comics. Dez Skinn was the UK comics equivalent of Dallas’ JR Ewing. But like him or loathe him, he wasn’t just part of the entire circus – he was the circus, with fingers in just about every part of the pie*. I worked for him longer than any other human being alive and that alone is something that frightens the living daylights out of me sometimes. I should have lasted thirty seconds working for him; instead I made it to 11 years before the relationship suffered total meltdown. It should be noted that I was his longest serving employee and that has importance.

[*Dez once ran a poll in his own magazine about who the most important people in British comics were – the poll showed that his readers obviously thought he was, by quite a large margin; I came in at #5, but he explained to me after the issue in which the results came out that a) he couldn’t really include me for obvious reasons, and b) the obvious reasons were I had no power in the industry at all, he did, people just thought I was autonomous from him, but that wasn’t the case. There is little paraphrasing in that previous sentence.]

Tales From the Heart of England was the gossip column I invented and it first appeared in Dez’s Comics International with issue #6. Within three issues it had had a significant name change and had been placed near the back of the magazine, where it would stay until it fizzled out a year or two after my departure – this wasn’t a bad thing; it was placed there as the last major section; the column to break up all the boring advertising and listings.

It was quite simply the most consistently successful thing in Comics International. It was known by the right people and it was completely ‘anonymous’ - in that the only people who didn't know who did it were blind, deaf or both. I had people falling over themselves to give me information, gossip, dirt and much more on everyone’s favourite writers, artists, publishers, heck, even letterers, inkers and colourists had secrets. It became known as Movers & Shakers (I heard the term in a Rush song and realised that it applied quite nicely to the column) and it put me in a very enviable position within the comics industry – I knew stuff about everyone - information to make or break careers.

The column had to be anonymous; it was part of its charm, but equally there was no one to answer to or come back to. Dez at first promoted the column as if it was just sent in by 'some bloke' and he had no control over what was in it and subsequently put a disclaimer on it disassociating it from the magazine’s editorial policy – this would become a bone of contention in later years when it was obvious the column became more important than him.

Movers was a huge success and married unconfirmed news and gossip with news from the burgeoning comics speculator market. Comics, probably as a direct result of retailers asking for vastly inflated back issue prices of Batman comics, had suddenly become the new antiques. There was gold in them there hills – or in this case the attic or the cellar or the old suitcases or your mum’s loft. Comics suddenly became a source for instant wealth and I was the guy telling everyone what was hot and what was not – and I ran my own comics retail business! You now understand why the column was ‘anonymous’? It could not be seen as being written by a retailer, because accusations of market manipulation could be levelled at us (or specifically me, as Dez had already disassociated himself from the column). If people knew that Movers & Shakers was written by a retailer, its credibility would have been shot. Plus the unique thing about the column was that it was read just as much for the speculator news as it was for the gossip and if people suspected there was someone out there essentially making it up on the strength of what his shop was doing... Do I need to spell it out?

My life is never without some irony, I hardly ever benefited from my predictions - I reported on the hits, I didn't rake it in. I was a safe retailer; I ordered what I needed and very rarely any extra, despite having all kinds of premonitions urging me to the contrary. I normally predicted the hot ones after I sold out of them. Despite having an excellent record in spotting the hits, I rarely ever put my money where my mouth was. A repeat of the comic bags episode from years earlier; I was too scared to speculate.

It was the advent of the speculator that basically shot the goose that laid the golden egg. Comicbooks have always had a collectibles. The very first comic mart I went to had comics for as high as £25! What I didn’t know was that comics were worth considerably more than £25*. Comics were growing so big by the end of 1990 that there were even price guides being released, to help aspiring collectors and dealers. In the USA there was even a monthly magazine version of the annual price guide; it had to exist because the prices of comics were fluctuating faster than a black day at the stock market!

[*My first comics hard luck story goes back to about 1973. My family had lived in Canada and my eldest brother, who I said would later return to comics, had been interested in them and had a couple of hundred in the garage. Most of these were Marvels and DCs ranging from about 1963 to 1968, although there were some from much earlier that he’d swapped with a friend. Instead of throwing them out when we moved back from Canada, my dad had the brilliant idea of using them in the bottoms of crates and in-between pictures and stuff in the huge packing case that was being sent over by sea. The irony here was that before American comics became easily available in the UK, the only way many of them got here was as ballast in container ships; my dad was doing exactly what shipping firms did during the late 1940s and most of the 1950s.

About half of the comics he packed didn’t survive one way or the other and finally after two years back in the UK my dad asked me if I wanted any of the comics he found in the bottom of the crate. I looked through them and was amazed that we actually had American comics in the house and I’d never known. A few of them were quite exceptional and contributed to the considerable value that my first collection would have been worth. Some of these comics were in incredibly good condition considering the journeys they had been through. I salvaged about 30 comics from the box, those that were left had been either saturated and dried out or been badly torn up; I seemed to discard these comics, despite having some US comics in my growing collection that didn’t even have covers.

We lived in the middle of a terrace of houses and at the end a new family called the Andrews moved in and their eldest boy, a horrid little shit who’d thieve anything if it wasn’t nailed down, called Paul was foisted upon me. He liked everything I owned, so much so he even stole my pet tortoise and then got his folks to argue that they had always had one, despite the fact it had the same painted name on the shell as mine had. They were real scumbags of a family, but my folks were largely socialists and believed that we should share our things with those who weren’t as well off as us. Paul took a real liking to my comics, but I didn’t like him touching them – heck, I didn’t even like him looking at them. My mum thought it might be a good idea if I gave Paul some of my comics; perhaps the British ones that I no longer collected. It seemed like a fair idea, even if I didn’t really want to share anything with this kid – I didn’t like him. But my mum went on at me, telling me to find a dozen or so of my old comics so that this kid could start his own collection.

I’ve always been a procrastinator and this was one of those occasions where it really backfired on me. I was trying to work out the origins of some of the comics I’d salvaged, a couple of them were unlike anything I’d ever seen before; they even made my few American comics look odd. These dozen or so comics were sitting on my desk in my bedroom. My mother, fed up with me not giving her the comics she’d asked for, saw this small stack of comics and jumped to the conclusion these were the ones I was happy to give away. So she did just that – gave them to this kid, Paul Andrews, originally from Bradford, Yorkshire. The shit.

My memory for things like covers was pretty much photographic and I now believe that these comics were all printed prior to 1960, and one of them in particular was very special. The comic that confused me the most was actually a comic called Red Raven #1. Originally published in 1940, it was the only issue, it was very rare and in top condition it would sell for about £10,000 today, even in 1973 it was worth at least $4,000. Red Raven #1 is what would be called a Golden Age comic; this is a category of comic deemed so by virtue of when it was published. Comics prior to 1956 were often called Golden Age; ones published after this were called Silver Age (and are, by and large, worth considerably more, on average, than any other comics, with some noticeable exceptions). Red Raven came out in 1940, during the Second World War, in the two years preceding this both Action Comics #1 (the first ever appearance of Superman) and Detective Comics #27 (first Batman) were released – these are the two most expensive comics of all time, both selling upwards of 6 figure sums and have been sold for a million just recently.

The others given away were all 1950s horror and science fiction comics and could have been worth varying amounts today. My mother gave away about £10,000 worth of comics to a boy who would chew the corners; stick bits up his nose, try to torment his dog with and attempt to feed them to my tortoise. I expected these comics lasted about ten minutes before his skanky mother put them in the bin. Like I said, shit...

But that wasn’t the only disaster that befell me at that age – I found a commemorative brick – no, I’m not shitting you – which had been laid by King George V. I thought it was worth money, my dad didn’t, so when we moved he made sure we forgot to bring this quite impressive brick. Thirty years on, one of these antique programs and about having money in your attic had a similar type brick – it was worth over £200! I think I simultaneously had a nose for a good deal and an ability to let it slip through my fingers, before I could take advantage of it!]

Next: A short history of the origins of comics retail in the UK.

Friday, 1 April 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Three)

ii) Adventures in Comics Retailing

A comic shop seemed the most obvious choice for a venture into the world of self-employment. I knew a damned sight more about comics than I did anything else and anyone could run their own business, right?

It wasn’t as easy as I expected. April 1988 was a positive month, but it would be 18 months before I opened my own comic shop. It would be a tough 12 months, followed by a stupid 6 months and even then, my attempts would have been greeted with a report card that would say ‘could have done so much better’...

I might have had a few thousand comics split between my house and my brother-in-law’s bedroom, but I didn’t have anything like the stock required for a shop; I didn’t have any premises and I didn’t really have much of a clue. It wasn’t like I’d paid much attention to comics shops, regardless of the number I’d been in. They had been, for the best part of three years, a place for me to escape to and spend money I didn’t have in. I might have believed that I could do so much better than Lee at Blitz Comics, but the reality was that he was doing it and I wasn’t.

The wife made a very good point by the time the summer of 1988 came around; I needed to get a job because we were penniless again. I think she also realised that me getting a job that I’d be happy doing was akin to finding a needle in a universe of haystacks. Fortunately, an old school friend of mine called Toby came to the rescue. He was actually doing what I wanted to do, he was starting his own business – a burger van situated on the edge of a burgeoning industrial park and he was struggling to make it work on his own. He had all the enthusiasm, but none of the nous to make it work. I offered him two things; the ability to cook and the ability to cook under pressure. It would have been unfair to suggest Toby couldn’t cook, but not unfair to suggest that once orders exceeded two he started to panic. He was in danger of going out of business because he couldn’t deliver on time. I stepped into the breach and for 9 months, we slowly built up his business and turned his little burger business into a going concern.

We were ambitious; we tried different things and most of them worked. Toby liked the idea of using top quality products, which meant cutting the profit margins, but offering the punter something so good they wanted to use us. Instead of using cheap shit, industrially produced pap, we used the best ingredients and charged fractionally more for them. Our burgers were made from real beef, our bacon butties had good quality bacon and on top of all the excellent food we were serving, we developed an impressive double act behind the counter. Toby’s brother-in-law, who often came out of his way to buy bacon butties from us, reckoned it was the reason people came to us – we could serve crap and they’d still come along because we brightened up peoples’ days.

Unfortunately, Toby had keepers. His brother (now a Liberal councillor in Corby) and his brother’s business partner had financed the operation and had purchased the wagon on the proviso that at some point in the future Toby would start to pay off the wagon and also pay them a percentage of the profits. The problem was he also had a young child, a demanding partner and me to look after. It wasn’t like he even paid me a lot; I got about £70 a week, which effectively was about double the going rate for unemployment benefit in those days, yet I was at work for 6am six days a week and often didn’t finish before 4pm – I was doing long days, but enjoying them and while I could give the wife £50 a week, we were at least keeping the wolves at arm’s length. Once Toby’s financiers stepped in, we needed to rethink things and that created more problems because the guy who gave me this job still couldn’t cope on his own.

Over the current last few years I’ve suffered with a bad back; from about 2006 to now I’ve struggled to exist at times and it seems that these problems I now have might have been linked back to a cold morning in the January of 1989. I was cooking the bacon and sausages for the breakfast run when I did something to my back. I was to learn later that I trapped a nerve, one of my sciatic nerves and subsequently Toby’s personnel problems were solved for him. The injury meant that he had to run his business on his own, I was incapacitated. The doctor signed me off of work for a minimum of three weeks – which turned into 6 weeks – and by the time I was fit to return to work, business at the wagon had tailed off to such an extent Toby was considering calling it a day. He struggled to cope, wasn’t prepared to compromise and eventually people went elsewhere. It was March 1989 and I was unemployed again.

Fortunately, during the time I worked for Toby, I had managed to continue to build up my comics stock. Except, what I was doing now wasn’t just going to shops and buying what I wanted, I had put adverts in the free papers, in newsagents’ windows and wherever I could touting for business. If anyone had any old comics, I’d give them the best price for them (if I wanted them) and this was proving to be a lucrative little exercise. Oddly enough, it was while I was doing this that sparked my eldest brother into considering doing the same thing; especially when he learned how much some of the comics I was buying for a pittance were worth. By the time the summer was drawing to a close, I had my eyes on a shop; I’d got some friends to work on a self-designed shop fitting project and I failed to see the nose in front of my face.

With hindsight, I find it quite ironic that the very first photograph of me to appear in the local paper, as a promotion for the opening of Wellingborough’s first (and only) comics emporium, was one of me grinning maniacally, like the Joker, over the top of a Batman comic featuring said Master of Mirth. The Joker, for those of you who don’t know, is quite mad and I must have been quite mad to open the shop away from the main town of the county. But I was impetuous, like the Joker and I would suffer later, like the Joker.

Comics were big business in 1989. Batman had been a phenomenal success and comics were very much the latest ‘in thing’. People had them scattered on their coffee tables and around the lounge. Those responsible for this revolution in peoples thinking were many from the list of names mentioned earlier. Comics had conquered the middle classes and had been riding the crest of a wave of increasing sales for a couple of years. That wave would last for only a couple more, but even by the time I opened my shop it was showing signs of faltering in some areas.

The success of Tim Burton’s Batman wasn’t the only reason that comicbooks suddenly became in vogue. Batman had been at the front though. Not only had Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns been reviewed in the New York Times, but also Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke had made serious critics sit up and take note. Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen had been talked about in literary circles as one of the greatest pieces of comics fiction ever undertaken. Comics were being taken seriously by the outside world, films were being made with big budgets and people were returning to their childhoods and buying not only Batman comics but anything they recognised from their youth. It was promoted as a good time to be into comics and to be honest, it felt that way.

I threw my net out and hoped to catch a little bit of that wave. I opened my shop with about 10,000 comics in stock and all the latest releases on specially manufactured display units. I expected to be a millionaire within 10 years (I was being conservative in my estimates). My initial customers were either comics fans who couldn’t believe their luck, mildly confused locals who wandered in off the street and middle aged men who wanted to regain their youth.

At the same time as the shop opened I purchased my first computer. It was one of those Amstrad word processor jobs, with a built-in Scrabble game. I intended to use it to produce a mail order catalogue to complement the comic shop. I also rediscovered my love for writing. I started to produce a weekly newsletter for the shop’s regular customers. It featured gossip, news, info and opinions about what was good or not in the shop. It was popular. It was also very raw and undisciplined, but it was honest – something I have always suffered with.

Let’s also get another thing clear, this was 1989 and although my knowledge of comicbooks was of absolute nerd-like proportions, I actually knew very little about the industry from a retailer’s point of view and even less from an insider’s position. I had plenty of experience working in a retail outlet having done it when I left school, but to succeed in comics you needed something extra and I was in for a crash course in comicbook politics. I call it a crash course, it actually took about 4 years in total, and by the time I knew everything that was needed about running a successful comic retailers, I wasn’t doing it any longer.

The opening months of Squonk!! (the two exclamation marks were important) was an enjoyable eye-opener. You could not fault me for my enthusiasm; I went out of my way to be as accommodating as possible, even if that meant I ended up, temporarily, out of pocket. The first few months were tough; I would sit at my till for hours on end and do no business and then 10 minutes before I was due to lock up and go home, I would get a flood of customers in, spending huge amounts of money and making the day worthwhile. I have imprinted on my mind the amount of money I took on the opening day – £186 – which seemed like a lot of money; two years later a grand was the average on good day. But in the early days I had to realise that being open 10 hours a day didn’t mean anything when my big spending customers were actually working and wanted to have access to my shop after 5pm. The thing was they didn’t just want access to the shop in the half an hour where I would be considering winding down; they wanted access to me. I began to realise very quickly that it wasn’t just the comics my nerds wanted, they wanted me too.

By the spring of 1990 I was growing moderately successful and rapidly shrinking the overdraft – I obtained the loan for the shop in the April of 1989, yet didn’t open it until the middle of October. It would be fair to say that I ended up blowing several grand on living instead of planning and spending it on the store; subsequently corners were cut – not that the customers would have noticed, but I knew. Interest rates in the UK were atrocious - averaging 14% - and had they been better I probably would have been able to actually make money rather than just tread water. At the same time as my overdraft was shrinking, I had reacquainted myself with a person from my past – one of the people on the list of Brits in comics shown previously. With hindsight, I had a man who would become a short term partner in Squonk!! to thank for the meeting. One of my regular Saturday customers had been regularly reading my weekly newsletter and had been so impressed by it, he sent copies to London and they obviously made an impression with the Stan Lee of British comics, because Dez Skinn called me up and offered me the chance to write for his new comics magazine!

Within a few weeks of that first phone call I was working on writing the column for him. We met again for the first time in ten years, but he didn’t really remember me, but that was hardly a revelation or a matter for concern, he knew that I had been on the edges of that group of people – his group – and we knew the same people by association. The fact I was now in my late 20s and not some snot-nosed kid also added weight to the situation.

When I had first met Skinn, I was one of seven people who shared a joint with him. It was the first time I’d ever smoked anything stronger than a Rothmans, so it obviously made an impression on me. This had been in London in 1978 at one of the capital’s first comic conventions. I was editing Media at the time and had felt that I was perhaps on the verge of stepping up another rung on the ladder. We had talked at times as well, to me this man was one of the important people in British comics and you didn’t just wander over and have a frivolous conversation with the likes of him. You needed to make sure that you could impress him. I didn’t get the chance to impress in the Seventies and by the time I met him again in 1990 I’d been through a lot of life and cottage industry celebrities didn’t cut the same ice with me as they once might have.

We talked, had a beer, talked some more, reminisced about things we both identified with and eventually I offered him the comics industry’s first real gossip column. My relationship with Skinn had begun – for better and for worse.

My crash course in comics was about to begin. I was both apprentice and vessel.

Next time: The False dawn of DG Skinn and a lesson in hard luck stories.